Response to Gardner’s Review of Women Serving God

October 1, 2020

I am grateful for Steve Gardner’s 7000 word review of my book, Women Serving God. I appreciate the careful reading and attention he has given to it. This response is almost 3500 words.

Steve himself, as readers of his blog Authentic Theology know, has devoted significant biblical and historical attention to the question my book addresses. His blogs also address larger considerations related to this topic that I don’t address in my book. I encourage everyone to read his blog.

My book is intended for leaders, ministers, and elders among churches of Christ. Steve recognizes this, though he thinks parts of it might be useful in an academic setting and perhaps overly technical for some readers in my target audience. He is probably right. I attempted to communicate without too many textbook technicalities. Nevertheless, some technical details demand attention.

Thank you, Steve, for the helpful summary of the book and its strengths.

The majority of Steve’s review is focused on weaknesses in the book. Every book has weaknesses; mine is no exception. He identifies three weaknesses in two paragraphs (#words) and then focuses on what he considers the book’s major weakness for ten printed pages (#words).

The first weakness is what appears to be an implication that “changing’s one hermeneutic is needed to reach a conclusion of ‘full participation’.” That critique makes sense to me, though it is not the nature of my own journey. Can one come to a full participation perspective through a blueprint hermeneutic? I think they can. If one understands 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 the way I suggest in the book, potentially one can still hold a blueprint hermeneutic and affirm full participation. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. In fact, my book, hermeneutically, is much more exegetical than theological.

At the same time, there are some expectations and processes embedded in the blueprint hermeneutic (as I have described it in Searching for the Pattern as well as in Women Serving God) that create unnecessary (though perhaps not insurmountable) hindrances to the full participation of women in the assembly. For example, the search for a specific authorization for assembly practices rather than a theology of giftedness may entail the exclusion of women even if 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are understood as I have argued in the book. The blueprint hermeneutic expects that God has fully regulated the assembly, and where we lack examples, commands, and necessary inferences to specifically and explicitly identify a practice, it is–as I note below–safer to exclude rather than include.

The second weakness is that I did not “meaningfully address centuries-long” interpretations that demeaned women as ontologically inferior, uniquely blameworthy for the human condition, and inherently weak and unfit for public leadership. That is fair. I did not focus on these points. I did, however, identify some of these perspectives when I wrote about Lipscomb, Harding, Sewell, and Bell or the church’s opposition to suffrage and the “New Woman Movement.” My narrow focus on my own journey and how the history of churches of Christ illuminated that for me did not push me to call attention to this larger story.

I acknowledge Steve’s point. This larger story needs to come into play when one fully and systematically assesses gender in the history of churches of Christ. My third volume will address this point. I will locate the exclusion of women from leadership in the larger story of Christian tradition, especially as I address more specifically and more fully the question of “male headship.” I recognize the legitimacy of Steve’s point.

The third weakness is my use of “giftedness” in lieu of “calling.” I don’t find this compelling because I see “giftedness” as assuming a call to use one’s gifts. Moreover, I did not emphasize the “calling” dimension because I focused on specific language in Scripture related to the exercise of gifts, God giving gifts, etc. My intended audience is best addressed, in my estimation, with the biblical language of gifting rather than calling. However, I acknowledge “calling” as a legitimate and important dimension of the discussion. As Steve noted, my responders in the book appealed to “calling” more than I did, though they also spoke of giftedness as an important aspect of their own stories.

The primary weakness Steve identifies is my historical interpretation of the participation of women in assemblies of Restoration Movement congregations in the mid-19th century. Steve spends ten pages (#words) responding to two pages in my book (pp. 48-49; about 700 words).

My purpose in sharing this historical perspective was to lay some brief groundwork about the 1830s-1880s (pp. 48-49) for the major discussion of the 1880s-1930s (pp. 50-62). The claim that the audible and visible participation of women in some assemblies was not “uncommon” and was part of “many” congregations is not a claim that it was dominant or the majority. Rather, it is a recognition that such participation was not totally excluded from the experience of churches in that period and it was not rare. “Some” would have probably been better than “many” in my claim. “Many” may leave the impression that it was far more common than I actually think it was, though how widespread particular practices were is ultimately unknown (perhaps even inaccessible to contemporary historians).

I think the evidence I provide sufficiently demonstrates my basic claim, but perhaps I should have provided more evidence and greater detail. However, considerations of space and the relatively minor function this section played in my book did not merit a fuller treatment for my purposes.

While Steve thinks my assessment is not consistent with Bill Grasham’s outstanding article in the 1999 Restoration Quarterly, I think the two are complementary and essentially agree. He has details I don’t have and vice versa. The reader can decide for himself. Here is a link to Grasham’s piece. His opening sentence is: “There has never been a completely uniform view of the role of women in the work and worship of the church in the Restoration Movement, and this was particularly true in America at the turn of the 19th century.” By the mid-20th century, churches of Christ did establish a broad uniformity: women were totally excluded from audible and visible leadership in the assembly.

I understand Steve’s concern is that (1) I may have conflated churches of Christ and the Christian Church with some of the sources I used, and (2) if my reading of the evidence is skewed, as he claims, then the larger problem is I fail to acknowledge how indebted churches of Christ are to the historic traditions of the Christian faith regarding women. These are two legitimate concerns.

On the first, I was careful in my section on the 1880s-1930s to use sources who were associated with churches of Christ and the conservative regions of the Restoration Movement. For example, Daniel Sommerwho defended the privilege of limited participation in the assembly—was, according to Leroy Garrett, in some sense the founder of churches of Christ through the Sand Creek 1889 Address and Declaration. The Christian Leader & Way, which was conservative-leaning (James A. Harding was co-editor), published many articles defending the limited participation of women (see some citations here). Moreover, Benjamin Franklin was a conservative leader in the Restoration Movement, the spiritual ancestor of Daniel Sommer. Earl West’s biography of Franklin, Elder Benjamin Franklin: The Eye of the Storm, demonstrates this. Certainly Franklin believed that women should not participate in assemblies gathered for official business and decision-making, but he defended their participation in limited ways through prayer and exhortation. Both Sommer and Franklin, along with others in their tradition among churches of Christ, advocate a wider expression of female voices than typical among churches of Christ in the 1940s-1950s.

Nevertheless, Steve’s point is important to consider, and if my narration conflates the practices of the churches of Christ with the Christian Church (as that distinction emerged in the 1900-1920s), then it needs revision. However, I was careful to pay attention to such, and I don’t think I did conflate them. Nevertheless, I am could have overlooked something in my sources and interpretation. It bears checking.

On the second concern, it is important to remember that revivalism in the 18th and 19th centuries included female exhorters and a wider participation of women within assemblies and in what came to be called “camp meetings.” This became even more the case in the Holiness Movement in the second half of the 19th century. The revivalist tradition included women in ways that was not true of earlier Christian traditions. This influenced some in the Restoration Movement, and this may account for some of the diversity present in the 19th and early 20th centuries (even in what we know as churches of Christ).

I appreciate the detailed attention Steve gives to my evidence on pages 48-49. I welcome his engagement here, and it was helpful as a fuller record. He addresses Faurot in the Millennial Harbinger, Benjamin Franklin from his American Christian Review, Krutsinger in the Gospel Advocate (accessible in the Gospel Advocate here) Charlotte Fanning (her biography by Emma Page [p. 16] and William Anderson’s [p. 370] comment in Franklin College and Its Influences), and Lipscomb in the 1876 Gospel Advocate. I don’t find the critique of Faurot, Franklin (as I mentioned above), Fanning, and Krutsinger compelling, but Steve does have a point, I believe, about Lipscomb.

Concerning Faurot, my point is the one Steve makes. Faurot only knows of “two churches outside of Bethany that completely prohibit women from all acts of worship, including exhortation and singing.” In other words, women typically participated in the assemblies and two congregations (that Faurot knew) completely silenced women. In other words, while women were silenced in Bethany (not totally, however, due to congregational singing), they were not silenced in most other congregations in Faurot’s experience.

Tolbert Fanning preached, and Charlotte Fanning led singing. Their summer vacations from teaching school were used to conduct Gospel meetings or revival meetings throughout the Mid-South, especially in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Page, writing in 1909, called it leading singing and paralleled it with Tolbert’s preaching. In the chapel of Franklin College, Charlotte “led singing” sitting down, to be sure (at least in Anderson’s memory ). That form of participation, however, is out of sync with most churches of Christ today as sitting praise teams are discouraged or forbidden in most congregations, in part, because they include women.

Clearly, Lipscomb and Harding disagreed with Krutsinger. I made that point in the ensuing pages in the book, though I did not call attention to it on p. 49. I would not expect his view to have any dominant or frequent place in the Gospel Advocate, though Lipscomb printed Silena Holman’s advocacy for a similar position in the 1880s-1910s. The years from the late 1880s to the 1920s were filled with articles about women, church, and society. A variety of views are represented in queries, articles, and responses. Lipscomb even once commented that he had received so many inquiries and so often that he could only occasionally comment on the subject since it had already been discussed so often in previous articles. For example, the “Woman Question” was a “difficult question to settle. It is repeated almost every week” (Gospel Advocate, January 19, 1911, p. 78). During those years, the editors and staff writers of the Gospel Advocate, as I make clear in the book, opposed the audible and visible leadership of women in the public assembly.

I think Steve’s critique has the most weight with respect to the interpretation of Lipscomb’s 1876 article in the Gospel Advocate. I remember mulling over that article for close to a whole day in my research. I thought about leaving it out totally and perhaps I should have. It is subject to diverse interpretation, though I think my understanding is a credible one. What struck me in the article, however, is that when Lipscomb refers to the worship and work of the church in which every member (inclusive of male and female) is to participate it included not only  ministering to the sick but also reading verses and not only reporting someone as needing teaching but also praying. At the same, as I note in the book, Lipscomb did not believe women should be official leaders in the church or speak authoritatively in the assembly. In my opinion, in 1876, Lipscomb was not fully convinced about the private/public distinction he would stress in the 1880s-1910s. But I may be wrong about that.

While Steve’s critique focused on pages 48-49, my main intent was to stress how the years from 1888 to 1938 reflected a turbulent time of discussion within churches of Christ. [I chose 1888 because that was Silena Holman’s first engagement on the topic and 1938 because of the publication of Nichol’s book in that year.] I make no claim that the majority of churches of Christ favored or practiced the limited participation of women in the assembly. However, I do make a case that a significant segment of churches of Christ did. This included Sommer’s circle of influence north of the Ohio where 10% of churches of Christ lived in 1906. There were also parts of Texas where it was not totally foreign for women to pray audibly and exhort in the assembly. There were scattered advocates throughout the south as well (including people like Silena Holman).

A series of articles by Mrs. H. L. Knight of Unity, Maine, illustrates how movement sometimes took place among some in the 1900-1910s. In 1907 her congregation hosted John T. Lewis (who returned several times to the area), and later they would host T. B. Larimore. She lived in the orbit of the Gospel Advocate and churches of Christ. She wrote six articles in the 1911 Gospel Advocate (July 20 & 27, August 3, 10, 17, & 24) describing her struggle with whether women have the privilege of “individual” speaking in the public assembly. She practiced and advocated “individual” speaking for several years, was “tossed” about for eight years, but adopted a different stance within the past “two” years with a peaceful conscience. In her fifth article she stated: “It is made evident that both sides have convincing arguments to sustain them, and a person might with reason be as honest in contending for one side as the other; the arguments on one side seem to be as firm a foundation upon which to stand as those on the other side, and one might perhaps find as secure a foundation in the arguments of one side as the other” (August 17, 1911, p. 899).

For herself, though she recognized the difficulty and struggle in thinking about the subject, she concluded women should only participate in “congregational speaking,” not “individual speaking,” in the assembly. But her larger concern was “Christian Unity” (cf. Gospel Advocate 30, 1909, 1660-1), and she applied it to this question. She decided unity is based on the “safe side” (August 24, 1911, 931) as we follow commands and examples in the New Testament. In other words, be safe and follow the blueprint. This approach to unity is what distinguished churches of Christ from denominational bodies, according to Knight.

This became a dominant argument for the exclusion of female voices from leadership in the assembly. When asked questions about women teaching, Bible classes, and “woman’s work in the church,” John T. Hinds, for example, in the 1930 Gospel Advocate (p. 1223), wrote, “it is always better to err on the side of safety.”

A brief exchange between John Straiton (Firm Foundation, Aug. 14), G. C. Brewer (Gospel Advocate, Oct. 25), and John T. Lewis (Gospel Advocate, Nov. 15) in 1934 illustrates the move toward a greater (perhaps more rigid) uniformity. Straiton noted Moses Lard’s advocacy of audible prayers by women in the January 1868 Lard’s Quarterly, which had been published by B. C. Goodpasture in the July 1934 issue of the Gospel Advocate. Brewer recalled how in his past experience, though not in his present, women prayed in sentence prayers and sometimes “shouted” in the assemblies, but Lewis said that was not his experience. Brewer suggested the church should be willing to “survey our ground and see if the churches have been educated in the wrong direction.” Lewis thought it was dangerous to do so when Scripture is so clear. This exchange reflects a dynamic toward uniformity but with some memory of diverse past practices. The uniformity, however, was fast congealing and some thought they had arrived at and were maintaining solid apostolic ground.

Another example of diversity is found in the Firm Foundation, though there was agreement on the silence of women in the formal Sunday public assembly. For example, in 1933-1934, J. Luther Dabney (Nov, 28, 1933 and January 30, 1934) and J. D. Malephurs (January 16 and April 10, 1934) exchanged several articles. While both agreed that when the whole church was gathered, women should be silent, Dabney believed women may teach and preach in other settings even with men present. His particular interest was in “young people’s meetings” where he encouraged girls to pray and make speeches as part of the gathering. “It is much better to train our girls to prophesy and pray than to do nothing at all with them” (Nov. 28, p. 5). Malephurs, however, thought the biblical restrictions applied to all settings where men and women prayed and worshipped together, which is the understanding I advocated in the 1970s. Malephurs concluded that it is “not safe to have girls do anything in a training class that they are forbidden to do before” the church. “My girls,” he wrote, “are not developed to lead prayers and make speeches before boys, for Paul forbids them to make use of such training in the church” (April 10, p. 5). This is an example of the sort of discussions that were happening in the 1930s.

C. R. Nichol’s 1938 God’s Woman, which defended limited participation, might have been the last gasp of limited participation among churches of Christ. His book reflects, however, practices in his own Texas world and a defense of them.

Nevertheless, women were effectively silenced by at least the 1940s. F. W. Smith, the respected long-term minister (36 years) of what is now the 4th Avenue congregation in Franklin, Tennessee and an esteemed writer for the Gospel Advocate, illustrates the sort of decision that was made (Gospel Advocate, 1929, 778-9; emphases are his).

“To what extent a Christian woman has the right to participate in public worship has never appeared as clear to me as I could wish, and for that reason I feel unable to deal with the question. . . I conclude, therefore, not dogmatically, but to be on the safe side, that since the word of God does not clearly and explicitly inform us that it would be Scriptural for a woman to lead the prayer in the assembly of the saints, it would be best to conform to the custom in this respect of the ‘loyal’ churches.”

Safe and loyal would become the watchwords of churches of Christ on this question as well as others. Smith reflects something of a transition in the making among conservatives. Sommer’s position, though largely forgotten, died the death of marginalization as southern churches of Christ (under the influence of the Gospel Advocate primarily) overwhelmed them in number, influence, and institutional power (e.g., colleges and papers).  In the context of the loss of frontier revivalism, the Christian Church division, opposition to cultural movements (suffrage, temperance, and “New Woman”), and the marginalization of the Sommer tradition, by the mid-20th century churches of Christ emerged as a prime example of a Christian tradition that excluded women from all audible and visible leadership in the assembly. Interestingly, they emerged as such at the same time other traditions were becoming more inclusive.

I am grateful for Steve’s work in the sources. His acquaintance with them and his intent to double-check my citations is highly commendable. Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the commendation of the book despite its weaknesses.

Peace, my friend.


Response to Renew’s Review (Part 2) of “Women Serving God”

August 16, 2020

I am delighted to continue the conversation Renew began when they started a multi-blog review of my book Women Serving God. Their first offering focused on hermeneutics (my response is here), and this second part focuses on 1 Corinthians 11. The review is almost 7000 words long (mine about 5000). Rick Oster and a document created by Rick and others (including Rodney Plunket, also a friend over many years) for the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, are the primary resources for this installment.

Rick and I have been colleagues, co-workers, co-teachers in Europe, and friends for almost thirty years. I deeply value and appreciate our friendship. I also appreciate the detailed attention he gives to 1 Corinthians 11, especially the function of head coverings in ancient Roman culture. There are few exegetes I trust more than Rick, and whatever he says deserves careful consideration.

Rick and I were fellow faculty members at Harding Graduate School of Religion (now Harding School of Theology) from 1991-2000. I audited his course on 1 Corinthians and devoured his commentary on 1 Corinthians in the College Press Series. I am quite familiar with his perspectives on 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 from the commentary, his ground-breaking 1988 New Testament Studies article about Roman head coverings, and conversations as well as classroom discussions. I cherish those experiences and our friendship.

I am surprised to hear, however, that 1 Corinthians 11 is not a difficult text. I understand that Rick has a settled conviction about it, but it has been difficult since the second century with divergent understandings about whether it is hair or artificial coverings, the meaning of kephalē (head), and—in contrast to Rick and myself—how the church practiced this text by forbidding women to participate in assemblies. Church history, including the last 100 years, tells us this is a difficult text (see Brown’s paper for a brief history of interpretation).

Summary

Where we agree . . .

  • Whatever headship means, women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assembly described in 1 Corinthians 11-14, which supports, at the very least, a “limited participation” perspective or Renew’s soft complementarianism.
  • Paul roots his understanding in the theological reality of headship, which coheres with God’s creation of man and woman in Genesis 1-2.

Where we differ . . .

  • Renew understands headship as a function of male authority (which the covering supposedly symbolizes) while I think “headship” is more related to source of life, origin, kinship, and intimate connection or relation while tentatively recognizing the covering as a matter of sexual propriety and the honor of women as well as their “heads.” (Even if the covering symbolizes male authority, 1 Corinthians 11 does not exclude women from leading in prayer and prophecy in the assembly on that basis.)
  • Renew believes there are headship functions in the assembly that exclude the participation of women while I don’t see any evidence for that exclusion, especially in 1 Corinthians 11 (which is the chapter under review).

What is irrelevant to the purposes of my book . . .

  • The precise nature of the covering—whether hair or artificial, whether more Roman, Greek, Jewish, or otherwise—is irrelevant to how this text fundamentally supports, at the very least, the “limited participation” of women in Christian assemblies.

A Misunderstanding

Everything is cultural. I affirm that in my book, which is part of the point in saying there are no contextless, timeless propositions in Scripture. Every text is situated, and, especially in the case of the epistles (as Rick rightly notes), occasional.  I’m not sure where I say in the book (my book is being reviewed, the statement is put in quotation marks, and the heading names my understanding as something with which Rick disagrees), “Well, this is just something that’s temporal and cultural, and this over here is eternal because it’s not connected to anything situational in the letter.” I am truly scratching my head. This is not my view. I can’t identify anything in my book that would even approximate such a statement.

The counter to the above statement placed in quotes is that we must read the text closely, seek valid “historical reconstructions,” and interpret the meaning of the text. I totally agree, and Rick’s example of the “holy kiss” is a good one.

I think historical reconstructions are important tools. They are quite credible at times, and they help make sense of a text. Rick is a trustworthy guide in these reconstructions. At the same time, they are reconstructions. This entails a collection of archaeological artifacts and ancient texts being construed (interpreted) in a particular way in order to provide the basis for a reconstruction of an event or a ritual that is not fully or explicitly described in the text itself. There is significant room for missteps in such historical reasoning. While I highly value reconstructions because they often provide tremendously helpful insights, they themselves necessarily involve several levels of complex interpretation. It is not a firm place to stand if the reconstruction is the explicit ground upon which a theological point is made or understood. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for the sort of historical work Rick does, and I have learned much from him over the years.

On Veils

Much of Rick’s response explains his understanding of Roman head-coverings in Roman cultic worship. In my book, I make no sustained argument about whether Paul is describing artificial coverings or hair. Both views, even from the earliest centuries, have been defended by various authors. To me, it is immaterial for my advocation of, at least, “limited participation” by women at Corinth. Whether it is an artificial covering or the hair does not affect the conclusion that women participated audibly and visibly in the Corinthian assemblies.

I realize it is important for Rick for at least two reasons.  First, the Roman practice is about leadership. Those who led Roman cultic worship covered their heads, both men and women. As Rick has demonstrated and others have seconded (Massey, “Veiling Among Men in Roman Corinth,” Journal of Biblical Literature [2018] 501-517), Roman men (and women) covered their heads when they led their cultic worship.

Second, Paul wants to make a gender distinction based on “biblical doctrine of headship.” In other words, men pray and prophesy uncovered (contrary to Roman practice) and women pray and prophesy covered (in conformity to Roman practice) in order to symbolize a gender distinction that is rooted in male authority (male headship). Symbolizing male authority is not part of the Roman practice, but Paul—if I understand Rick correctly—is adjusting the meaning of the covering so that gender distinctions are evident in accordance with a “biblical doctrine of headship.” Consequently, the woman’s covering serves “to express submission to men just as Christ does to God.”

Rick’s precise historical reconstruction is a minority view in scholarship, though he has illuminated the Roman practices that many now acknowledge. Yet, most see a wider cultural backdrop for 1 Corinthians 11 than Rick does. I think his application of Roman practices has merit myself, and that is why I mentioned Rick’s understanding of the covering as a sign of piety in my book (though I did not go on to say, as I should have, that Rick also believes it is, for Paul, a symbol of male authority—my apologies, dear friend).

Rick is clearly committed to this historical reconstruction, and he has substantial reasons for that commitment. However, there is a significant amount of scholarship that places this in a wider frame. The covering is not simply about Roman worship practices, although those Roman practices are part of the equation in some way. Rather, it was generally understood within Greco-Roman culture that uncovered long flowing hair that was not put up on the head signaled sexual availability, impropriety, or impiety. I reference the sources in the book, particularly Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Women) among others. For example, Winter—based on texts and archaeological evidence—wrote (Kindle location 968): “Therefore, it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.”

The fact that Roman men wore a covering in their cultic activities reflects their piety at pagan altars; it was not about sexual impropriety. Roman woman also covered their heads, when they led, at Roman altars, which was also about piety. However, as Westfall (Paul and Gender) demonstrates, the wearing of coverings by women in other cultures was a matter of sexual protection and integrity. Rick assumes the Corinthian assembly is only concerned with Roman practices because, in part, it was a Roman colony and Paul is explicitly describing leadership functions in the assembly. That may be, but I don’t think anyone knows that with any certainty and the practices of other cultures, as Rick notes, were diverse. There is little reason to think that the practices of other cultures were not in the mix as well. I don’t think we can assume that the Corinthian assembly was thoroughly and exclusively an arena for Roman practices. There is too much mix in the culture to restrict this to Roman practices only. It may be that Paul is seeking to sort out a complex mix of cultural practices gathered in the Corinthian assemblies. And, as Rick argues, Paul sorts it out in a way that is not Roman and introduces (for Romans, at least) gender distinctions not present in their own worship practices.

It is difficult, it seems to me, to assess what Paul is saying about the covering, its cultural setting, and its meaning. I lean toward the certainty that there is no certainty about the practice, meaning, and implications of the covering in 1 Corinthians, given the mix of Roman, Greek, Jewish and other cultures in Corinth. The situation is complex, and we only have these few words from Paul to clarify it for us. Clarity, it seems to me, is elusive.

In any event, and this is the most important point in this section, the precise nature of the head covering is ultimately immaterial to the point in my book, which focuses on the participation of women in the Corinthian assembly. On that point, there is common ground between Renew and myself.

Common Ground

Our common ground is quite significant. In substance, we agree.

Renew, Rick, and I agree that women audibly and visibly prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies. They served as leaders (Renew affirms this language in their conclusion) in the assembly while at the same time honoring their heads (whatever that may mean). Rick is quite explicit about this leadership because these are the women who covered their heads in the Roman cults, and Paul wants to continue that practice for women who lead in prayer and prophecy. This is why I moved from “no participation” to “limited participation” in my own journey. When I got to know Rick and came to some understanding of his position, my advocacy for “limited participation” was confirmed.  I thank Rick for the way he contributed to my own story

We also agree that Paul is talking about men and women in general rather than specifically husbands and wives. I did not make a sustained argument about that as Rick does in the review, but I agree with him. At the same time, this is part of the difficulty of the text—there are legitimate reasons for thinking Paul is only talking about husbands and wives. I don’t think we can say definitively. Nevertheless, I agree with Rick on this one.

We also agree that the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the same as the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In fact, we agree that 1 Corinthians 11-14 as a whole is discussing the practices of the same Corinthian assembly.

On Headship

Rick believes a “straightforward reading of the text” reveals that kephalē (head) “means authority.” According to Rick, Paul intentionally changed the Roman practice to conform to what Rick calls “a biblical doctrine of headship,” which entails some kind of gender distinction. For Rick, this gender distinction is about authority because in 1 Corinthians 11:3 “head” means “authority.” Yet, it is possible this gender distinction is about something else if “head” does not mean “authority.”

I make no sustained argument in the book about the meaning of kephalē. My point is, and I say this several times, that even if “head” means “authority,” women still participated in ways that led the assembly in Corinth. That is my major interest in Part 3, and it is a point upon which Renew, Rick, and I agree. Whatever kephalē means (even if it means authority or rank), it does not prohibit the audible and visible leadership of women through praying and prophesying in the assembly. In fact, women, when covered, actually honor their heads as they pray and prophesy in the assembly. Renew agrees.

Nevertheless, because the review stresses that male authority is rooted in a proper understanding of kephalē and suggests this is the main reason Paul institutes gender distinctions for the head-covering contrary to Roman worship practices, I digress to say a few words beyond anything I said in the book.

The fundamental problem with the English translation of “head” is that it is a literal translation of kephalē. Typically, that is not a problem at all. However, in this case, Paul is using the word metaphorically. He is not referring to the literal “head” but is using a figure of speech to say something about the relationship one sustains to the other (God to Christ, Christ to man, man to woman, 1 Corinthians 11:3). Translating it literally is a problem because the English word “head” has prominent meanings that do not belong prominently to the Greek word kephalē. While “authority” is one of the potential metaphorical meanings of the word, it is not a dominant one in classical Greek. Consequently, the association English readers attach to the word “head” are not immediately appropriate for what kephalē potentially intends as a metaphor in Greek culture. Another metaphorical meaning for kephalē is “source of life” or “origin.”

Rick thinks translating kephalē as “source” (or origin/relation) creates a Christological problem. The Trinitarian theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, however, did not think so. They read “head” here as source or origin/relation. Therefore, it is not some kind modern or agenda-laden “special pleading.” It is, in fact, classic Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Here is an example from Cyril of Alexandria (To Arcadia, 1.1.5.5; quoted by Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 136):  “The source [archē] of man is the Creator God. Thus we say that the kephalē of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephalē of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephalē of Christ is God, because He is from Him according to nature.”

Another example is Ambrosiaster (probably from the late fourth century; cited by Payne, 137): “God is the head of Christ because he begat him; Christ is the head of the man because he created him, and the man is the head of the woman because she was taken from his side.”

Another example is Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Greek Church (from Payne, 137): “For Christ is the head [kephalē] of us who of us who believe . . . But the head [kephalē] of Christ is the Father, as procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him. And the head [kephalē] of the woman is the man because he is her procreator [gennētēs] and progenitor [proboleus] and of like substance with him.”

According to Nicene theology, the Father is the source of the Son through an eternal relationship. Ancient Trinitarian theologians called this “order” (taxis) within the immanent Trinity (more specifically, the eternal generation of the Son). In other words, the Son is begotten from the Father, shares the same nature (homoousia) with the Father, and this eternal relationship does not include submission or authority. There is order and thus differentiation but without hierarchy or eternal submission or subordination (see the chapter by Madison Pierce, “Trinity Without Taxis?, in Trinity Without Hierarchy).

Many complementarians reject the Trinity argument for complementarian gender relations, and many have recently abandoned that position. Even the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) discourages that argument. Denny Burk, the President of CBMW, now rejects the argument that subordination is part of the inner (immanent) life of the Trinity except as part of the decision to incarnate in the covenant of redemption. The works of the egalitarian Kevin Giles (Trinity and Subordinationism) and the complementarian Fred Sanders (The Triune God; see his blog piece here) have clarified this in contemporary gender discussions among Evangelicals (Giles and Sanders had a two hour discussion on this agreed point here). For a history of this discussion and the shifts or clarifications taking place within soft complementarianism, see Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity.

If, however, one reads “Christ” as the one who became flesh as a human being, “source” is still an appropriate meaning because the Father sends the Son (Christ) into the world to be born of woman. In this sense, as a human being representing all humanity, Christ (the resurrected one) is submissive to the Father, including the eschatological act of turning the kingdom over to the Father. The Nicene Trinitarians recognized this (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa among others). Moreover, it is important to remember the incarnate one is also God, and when Christ turns the kingdom over to the Father, it is so that “God may be all in all,” which includes the Son rather than excluding the Son as part of the divine, eternal reign.

Rick’s two Christological objections against the meaning of source are not substantial and are out of sync with the history of Nicene Trinitarian theology.

Unfortunately, if Rick believes there is an “eternal order” of authority and submission between God and Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3 (language used in one of the questions he was asked), I find this unfortunate because this claim stands outside the Trinitarian tradition of the Christian Faith. . Recently, this has been explicitly repudiated by quite a number of complementarian theologians as deeply problematic in substance (just as it was by Chrysostom and Theodoret among others in the fourth and fifth centuries).

Understanding kephalē as authority actually creates Christological problems. Eternal subordination, due to a headship ontology, entails the view that Christ is not equal in nature or essence to God. Chrysostom (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 3) put it this way, if “Paul had meant to speak of rule and subjection, as you say, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master” because, for Chrysostom, “rule and subjection” are not concreated but come after the Fall. According to Chysostom, “rule and subjection” are not present in Genesis 1-2.

Moreover, if we understand kephalē as “authority,” is this a claim that men have the same kind of authority over women that Christ has over men? Or, is it different in some way? Christ, it seems, has an ontological advantage over men in that Christ is divine. Do men have an ontological advantage over women that make them “heads” of women? In other words, if we read “head” as “authority over,” then this is rooted in ontology, nature, and essence. To put it another way, in this way male authority is grounded in some kind of ontological difference between men and women just as it is between Christ and man. I am convinced that the analogy of authority does not hold. Moreover, it does not fit the context of 1 Corinthians, as I will argue in a moment.

But we can agree on this. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is a theological statement, and the relationship between man and woman goes back to creation. The question at stake is the meaning of Paul’s appeal to creation and his use of kephalē.

Headship As Source of Life

As I see it, to see male authority in 1 Corinthians 11 depends on (1) the meaning of the covering, (2) the meaning of kephalē, and (3) a particular understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:10 (a passive reading of exousian echein in the sense of “have a sign of authority” when it literally says, “has authority”). I don’t include 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 because its point depends on the meaning of kephalē. More on that point in a moment.

(1) The meaning of the covering is highly disputed. The evidence for the covering as symbolic of male authority is minimal; it is not the dominant understanding in the Greco-Roman world. It is not the meaning of the Roman practice itself (as Rick notes), which is about piety (which is why men covered their heads while leading). Rather, the evidence in the broader culture—as Westfall, Winter, and Payne  (who thinks the covering is the hair) among many others describe—points to the covering of the hair or putting up the hair as a matter of sexual propriety. Married women were covered because they were not sexually available for other men than her husband. She wears the veil to honor her husband, which respects the husband-wife relationship. It is a signal that other men may not look upon her as an object of their predatorial sexual desires. The covering protects the woman. There is nothing explicit in 1 Corinthians 11 that describes the covering as a function of male authority or female submission.

(2) The meaning of kephalē is also highly disputed. The lexical meaning covers a broad range from authority/rank (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth) to source/origin (Westfall) to prominence (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians). [For a recent history of the lexical discussion, see Johnson’s article.] Complementarians now regularly acknowledge that “source” in the sense of kinship, origin, relation, or connection is a legitimate metaphorical meaning. (See, for example, the complementarian Clauch, “God is the Head of Christ,” in One God in Three Persons, edited by Ware).

In Paul, kephalē means source in Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 2:19 (as well other potential texts where the church is the body that receives nourishment and life from the head who is Christ). It also means authority in a sense synonymous with ruler (archēs) and lordship (kuriotētos) in Ephesians 1:21-22. The latter, however, is not Christ’s headship over the church, but over authorities and powers. Christ is the “head over all things to the church,” that is, for the sake of or for the benefit of the church.

Context, rather than lexical studies, determine the meaning of kephalē. It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, which provide the grounding for the meaning of kephalē, are statements about source or origin rather than authority. The sense of source is explicitly stated while the word authority is not present or any word that might give that sense. I think a “source of life” reading best fits what Paul is doing here, and the relation of “head” (God, Christ, man) to “body” (Christ, man, woman) is the relation of kinship, origin, connection, and relationship that reflects glory, respect, and honor. It is not “authority over” but deep connection; it is the sort of relation a head sustains to its body. That relation, in the Greco-Roman world, was one of nourishment and life, The head was not the ruling agent (the heart was). Rather, the head was the source of life (e.g., it was believed semen originated in the head).

(3) The meaning of “authority” (exousian) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is significant. I address this in my book. I will only repeat the conclusion (which is shared by many exegetes), and I trust readers will take up the book to see the details. Paul says a woman “has authority.” This is the only time Paul uses the word authority in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul places that authority in the hands of women. Women “have authority.” This is not a “sign” of authority (as many render it); the word “sign” is not in the Greek text. The verb is active in voice: a woman ought to have authority over her own head. Everywhere in 1 Corinthians this phrase occurs (e.g., 9:4-5), it is active in meaning. It is the right or privilege of the one who possesses the authority. Consequently, the only explicit claim about authority in 1 Corinthians 11 is that women have authority. Nothing is explicitly said about male authority.

Paul is not thinking about male authority and grounding that authority in creation. Rather, it seems to me, Paul upholds the honor that is part of a relationship between a head to its body while recognizing and accentuating the interdependence (mutuality) that exists between head and body. One does not exist without the other, and the grounding Paul provides for male headship is found in the sense of source. Woman was created from man (there is kinship, relationality) and for the sake of man (to fill the void so that humanity might fulfill its vocation to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule it together—the shared task of men and women). Paul’s argument is a source argument rather than an authority argument. It coheres with the meaning of kephalē in this context as source or origin of life (kinship, relationship, mutuality). “Authority” is extraneous to the context in relation to men, and the only authority named in 1 Corinthians that characterizes the relationship between men and women is a shared authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Further, the creation argument includes the fact that women are now the source of men by God’s procreative design. While the woman was sourced from the man, so now men are sourced from women. Women were created as the source of all men. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 clarifies that the idea of source between men and women is a mutual one. While a woman came from a man, now men come through women. This is practically a restatement of the mutual authority between husbands and wives identified in 1 Corinthians 7:4. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, which describes what is true “in the Lord,” reflects the mutual life of men and women in the Corinthian assembly where both men and women pray and prophesy in the assembly. This mutuality is grounded in creation, and there is no statement that grounds male authority in creation. The headship relationship is one of kinship, origin, life-source, and connection, which women honor by wearing a covering that protected women from sexual aggression and claimed sexuality integrity for themselves.

Teaching and Prophesying

According to Renew and Rick, even though women prayed and prophesied in the Corinthian assemblies, “the prohibited role is one of an authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” because that is a headship function. I do wonder where in Scripture that “authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice” is identified as exclusively male because it is a headship function (however that is defined).

Of course, that is not evident in 1 Corinthians 11. No activity or gift in 1 Corinthians 11 is identified as something exclusively male. Consequently, to defend that position one has to step outside the context of 1 Corinthians. First, Renew connects us with the responsibility of the priests to teach the people. That, as far as I know, is uncontested. It is true that priests were only male in the Hebrew Bible and one of their significant functions was to teach. However, it is no longer true that priests are only male in Christ. I affirm the priesthood of all believers in the Lord.

Moreover, we might also remember that prophets taught Israel as well as priests. The writings of the prophets teach us, and they call us to obedience and we submit to what the Lord says through the prophets. That sounds like a headship-authority function to me. How does one define an authority-headship function and exclude prophets from it? This is especially true when the function of teaching is nowhere explicitly designated as a “headship” function.

Prophets are leaders in the New Testament. The prophets Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32) are called “leaders” (hegumenoi) in Acts 15:22 along with others. This is the same word that Renew notices in Hebrews 13:7, 17 that characterizes people whom the congregation follows and submits. Were not congregations to submit to prophet-leaders? Why is that not a headship-function, if “head” refers to authority?

Prophets teach when they prophesy because they strengthen, edify, console, and encourage in such a way that people learn and unbelievers are convicted (1 Corinthians 14:3, 24, 31). Many scholars recognize how prophecy and teaching “shade into each other” in the New Testament (for example, Boring, Sayings of the Risen Christ: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition, 79).

Prophets and Teachers are identified as distinct gifts in the New Testament, to be sure. We see this in the lists of 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 (“first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”), Ephesians 4:11 (“apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers”), and Romans 12:6-7. Interestingly, the prophetic gift is always listed first in the above texts, just after the apostles in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 4:11. Prophets also offer an “exhortation” (1 Corinthians 14:3) which is exactly how Hebrews describes itself (Hebrews 13:22). Hebrews was a sermon of sorts (similar to what happened in the synagogue, Acts 13:15), and exhortation is what Scripture itself offers us (Romans 15:4). The hard distinction between teaching and prophesying is not sustainable.

Why is the role of the teacher a headship function but prophecy is not? This is the point to be demonstrated. One must demonstrate that prophecy is not a headship function while teaching is. Why is the headship function of teaching exclusively male? There is only one reason, it seems to me, to (1) make that distinction and (2) identify teaching as a headship function. This brings us back to 1 Timothy 2:12. The path of “limited participation” or soft complementarianism always ends up here. This is precisely where Renew’s position takes us—1 Timothy 2:12 is the sole text that excludes women from teaching as a function of headship. I’m fairly certain Renew will address this text more fully in a future installment.

Renew offers a new interpretation in the discussion of gender. They reinterpret the role of teacher as a headship function while the role of the prophet is not a headship function. For centuries within the history of the church, prophets were regarded as preachers, people who spoke the word of God, functioned authoritatively within the community of faith, and administered the Eucharist. The historic church regarded the function of prophecy as a form of preaching, and the distinction that “teachers” are authoritative preachers but “prophets” are only spontaneous speakers impressed by the Spirit in some way is a modern “reinterpretation” (to use the characterization with which I was charged in the first installment). It was primarily inaugurated by Grudem in order to explain the seeming contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and 1 Timothy 2:12.

Whatever the “Ministry of the Word” is (as named in the review), and the combination of texts and inferences present in the discussion of that task, it is a headship function whereas prophecy is not, according to Renew. Moreover, none of the texts referenced to the “Ministry of the Word” (unless Acts 6:4 only describes the apostles) exclude women except one . . . 1 Timothy 2:12. That text, above all others and perhaps no other text, ultimately defines what belongs solely to “headship” in the context of the assemblies of the saints when they gather for praise and prayer. But 1 Timothy 2:12 does not even explicitly appeal to “headship.”

1 Corinthians 11 does not identify what functions or gifts only belong to headship. We know praying and prophesying are not “headship” functions. Nowhere else does Paul ever use the language of headship in relation to the exercise of gifts in the assembly. I think that rather odd, if Renew is correct in its reading of the New Testament.

Conclusion

Women cover their heads, not because of male authority, but because they honor their relationship to their head (source of life). Kephalē does not refer to rank or authority but to the kinship relationship the head sustains to the body which is relational, intimate, mutual, and nourishing. The head is the source and origin of life to the body, according to the ancients.

Paul appeals to creation to ground this relationality, not authority. The woman was created from the man (thus, kinship and a sense of origin), and the woman was created because of the man (the man could not accomplish the divine mission alone; he needed a powerful ally to partner with him). The head cannot function without the body.

In the Lord, this mutuality is clear—one is not without the other. They are not only interdependent, but they share the same mission, the same flesh, and the same origin. They are both from God. They share a mutual authority. One does not have authority over the other in 1 Corinthians 11. Indeed, it is mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

In fact, the woman has her own authority which she exercises in the assembly as one gifted by God just as men are also so gifted. She does not need the covering of male authority, but she honors her head as the source of her life. Men should also honor women as the means by which they come into the world. Their authority is mutual rather than hierarchical (1 Corinthians 7:4).

Women, therefore, have their own authority to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the assemblies of the saints gathered for prayer and praise. They do not need male permission or the covering of male authority. They do, however, appropriately honor the source of their life just as men honor the source of theirs.



A Reply to Renew’s Response to My Response

August 14, 2020

I am pleased to receive an answer to my response to Renew’s review (first installment) of my book Women Serving God. I appreciate the tone and care in this piece. I reproduce, with Renew’s permission, their response below in toto from their Facebook page. My response follows their text below.

Renew wrote:

Reflections on Part 1 of On Gender and the Bible
(a Response to John Mark Hicks)
By 
Renew.org

Many thanks to John Mark Hicks for engaging us in dialogue about his recent book Women Serving God. We are grateful for the gracious tone he responded with and we appreciate him as a brother in Christ. We agree with John Mark on a great many important things, including the importance of arriving at biblical views of gender and church ministry.

In addition, there is a great deal in his book which is admirable. Very importantly, he champions servant leadership, encourages leaders not to stifle giftedness, and calls us back from traditionalism to the standard we should all affirm: the Word of God. Hicks writes, “Sadly, control and power are more often at play among the people of God than self-giving service” (146). This is a sad, true observation, and one which has often gone under the radar even as Christians have busily tried to cultivate correctness regarding these issues.

It will become clear in upcoming articles that we at Renew.org arrive at different conclusions from Hicks when it comes to the meaning of some biblical texts relevant to this topic. Our first article, however, dealt with how we interpret the Bible as distinguished from Hicks’s methodology. We are writing this to engage with some of Hicks’s responses to our first article.

A Possible Overstatement

It is true, as Hicks notes, that he never uses the word egalitarian to describe his position. Likewise, the point of Women Serving God is not to give a sustained argument about leadership structure in the church or in the home. Rather, the point of Women Serving God is more modest: he argues for full participation of men and women in their areas of giftedness when the church assembly is gathered. For this reason, we might have been overreaching to call Hicks’s position “egalitarianism.” He has the right to label his own position, and we don’t want to attach a label which isn’t the best fit.

Elsewhere, Hicks has defined egalitarianism as “the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position denies male headship as a theological value and opens all functions in the church/assembly to the church/assembly to women. There are evangelical (those who believe in biblical authority) and non-evangelical versions of egalitarianism.”[1] From this definition, we see that Women Serving God is arguing for at least some of the egalitarian perspective as he has defined it, although he hasn’t yet dealt specifically with leadership offices per se (i.e., “functions within the leadership”).

To be fair, however, Hicks gives arguments in his book which match the egalitarian position as we have seen it articulated by others. Whenever male authority is mentioned in his argument, it is implied to be something which is merely situational, with no binding implications. This is true of the maleness of the first human (121), the maleness of the Old Testament priests (138), the maleness of Jesus (143), and the maleness of the 12 apostles (148).

Whether or not the label fits, Hicks has certainly set up premises for an egalitarian conclusion. He is right that leadership is a gift the Holy Spirit gives to men and women (Romans 12:8). However, add in the idea that male leadership in the Bible is merely situational, and it takes no imagination at all to land on a church structure with female elders and senior ministers. The argument for egalitarianism has practically already been made. Yet the label “egalitarianism” can bring in unwanted or unintended connotations which we didn’t mean to import by calling his position egalitarian.

Q: A subjective hermeneutic?

It is indeed all too easy to use the label “subjective” for other people’s interpretations which you don’t like. Hicks is absolutely correct that the “blueprint” when it comes to gender roles “is not as clear as we have sometimes assumed” (26). To look at someone’s honest hermeneutical attempts and immediately cry, “Subjective!” would be ungracious and unfair.

When we use the word subjective, it isn’t because Hicks is trying to use cultural discernment in reading the text (as he points out, aren’t we all?). Rather, when it comes to Hicks’s hermeneutics regarding gender issues, it’s a selectivity which suggests subjectivity. He seems to be selective in what he emphasizes. Hicks articulates his case in a way that makes it appear the Bible is overwhelmingly stacked against the norm of male authority, except for one verse: 1 Timothy 2:12. Numerous times (116, 152, 153, 157, 160), he sets the rest of the Bible against this single verse when it comes to male authority in the assembly. Indeed, it was his one remaining “firewall” to embracing the full participation view.

To be fair, his book does present a defense of a particular position, and he is marshalling the best evidence for the full participation view. As a defense of a position (and since this isn’t a systematic theology of the entire Bible), there is going to be selectivity involved when it comes to which passages receive emphasis. When does selectivity therefore become problematic?

Being selective when it comes to Scripture becomes problematic when it brings about an overemphasis which overshadows other important truth. Hicks’s sincerity and diligence cannot be called into question. Still, in the interest of showing each and every actual and possible instance when women held positions of leadership in the Bible, there does seem to be an unfortunate overshadowing of a norm of godly male leadership which God set forth in both Old and New Testaments.

For example, the Persian Queen Esther gets her own subsection as a political and religious leader over God’s people, yet the book contains no mention of God’s pattern of placing kings over Israel (with the only queen in Israel being the usurper Athaliah). Shouldn’t either fact be just as frankly acknowledged? Another example: In describing Eve, Hicks uses language such as “powerful helper or rescuer,” “full and empowered partner,” and “the one whose creation fully equips humanity” (121-22). Meanwhile, Hicks implies that Adam holds “no hint of any rank or authority” before the Fall (123). That language feels a bit imbalanced, and the presentation a bit selective.

Q: The full story?

One of the definitive features of Hicks’s hermeneutic is to read each text through the lens of the eschatological goal (i.e., the new creation). When reading and applying Scripture, it is indeed imperative to know where we are in the storyline of Scripture. Likewise, we shouldn’t attempt to fossilize ourselves in First Century cultural norms; we should be diligent about effectively and faithfully contextualizing the kingdom of God in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Still, we wonder if Hicks’s way of framing the Bible’s big-picture story of the Bible is complete enough. Is it the case that the complementarian view bloats a few texts (most notably, 1 Timothy 2:12) out of all proportion so that the larger trajectory of Scripture is muted and truncated? On the contrary, we suggest that it is soft complementarians who are best positioned to apply the whole of Scripture. While we gladly acknowledge the glorious giftedness that the Spirit pours out on woman and man alike (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture), we also recognize godly male leadership as a norm that God employs in both Old and New Testaments (i.e., numerous passages of Scripture).

It seems that Hicks minimizes the latter of these two Scriptural realities. Is the maleness of Old Testament priests significant, given that many ancient pagan civilizations had priests and priestesses? Probably not, Hicks concludes; he suggests that the maleness of the Old Testament priests was probably no more theologically significant than having something to do with women’s menstruation periods: “The sanctity of blood probably excluded women from the priesthood due to their menstrual cycle” (138). We are told that the maleness of the apostles is no more instructive of how Jesus wants the church to be led than their ethnicity as Galilean Jews (148). However, why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food? And when the church branched out into Gentile territory, why was it that Paul continued to plant churches with male elders? There appears to be a norm of godly male leadership over the church, something which traces back to the church’s Founder. When you deemphasize this norm of godly male leadership which spans both testaments, you end up deemphasizing seemingly relevant parts of Scripture’s storyline. Even when it comes to the first stage in the storyline—Gen. 1-2—Hicks claims there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for Adam, yet Gen. 1-2 is precisely where Paul goes when establishing gender distinctions in church and marriage (1 Corinthians 11:8; 1 Timothy 2:13-14; Ephesians 5:31).

This metaphor is an oversimplification; so please don’t take this as a summary statement of Hicks’s position. But it’s almost as if the big-picture story of the Bible is being portrayed as a train which could move forward unimpeded, if it weren’t for a single log in the way. The train symbolizes full participation in the assembly with no gender distinctions in leadership, and the log is 1 Timothy 2:12. The log, we are told, can be removed if rightly interpreted. Could it be that, in keeping with the train metaphor, a more accurate portrayal would be that a healthy church moves forward when everybody’s giftedness is recognized and encouraged, and that the norm of godly male leadership—properly understood and humbly exercised—is not logs to be removed but rather railroad ties upon which a gifted church can move full speed ahead?

Ours is not a statement endorsing male leadership per se. We’ve all experienced how power-hungry males in leadership can completely wreck whatever they touch—including churches. Instead, ours is an endorsement of humbly following God’s way of doing church. We share this goal with our brother John Mark, but we suggest that there is a fuller way of incorporating all the relevant Scripture regarding this important topic than the model we read in Women Serving God.[2]

Two Final Observations

Hicks takes issue with our statement that he “interprets away the key texts.” As he puts it, “It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument.” Hicks is right that we made that assertion without making the argument. That argument will come in future articles, in which we will do a deep dive into these key texts. For now, please note that it’s a point well taken, and we should have waited to make such a claim until we presented the argument on which it is based. We anticipate waiting until after we have published the rest of the series before we respond to any of Hicks’s future responses to our articles.

Finally, we want to close with a very helpful statement from Hicks’s book, followed by a single reflection. Here’s his statement: “It is time to honor all the gifts God has given to women and for male leaders to recognize those gifts, share God’s mission with the other half of the church, and hear the gospel through the faithful voices of our sisters” (207). Yes, there are areas of disagreement we have with Hicks’s argument, but let us punctuate this summary statement of our brother with an “Amen.” This statement is precisely what we want to see in our churches.

[1] See John Mark Hicks, “Hermeneutics and Gender,” https://johnmarkhicks.com/…/2…/06/hermeneutics-and-gender.doc.
[2] For more on this fuller way of incorporating all the data, please read “Q: Is there a better way than seeing WDWD passages and WKSP passages as exceptions to each other?” at 
https://renew.org/on-gender-and-the-bible-what-john-mark-h…/.

My Response

To be sure, there is overlap in my position and egalitarianism, specifically the full participation of women in the assembly. At the same time, egalitarianism typically involves a much broader vision than I articulate or defend in this book. The term “egalitarianism” has connotations and associations that would have distracted from what I was doing in this book, and some of those associations are not commitments I share. My book focuses on a specific question. I appreciate Renew’s recognition that I wanted to keep this focus and not import extraneous meanings often associated with the term egalitarianism into their review of my book.

I’m not clear as to how my selectivity (which we all do in marshalling an argument or proffering an interpretation of Scripture, as Renew notes) is subjective when I address the perceived male patterns that supposedly ground male authority over women in the assembly.  They seem to think I ignored that. More on that in moment.

The only two instances of my supposed subjective selectivity noted are: (1) I call attention to Esther, but I don’t mention the Kings of Israel, and (2) I imply that Adam did not hold any rank or authority before the Fall.  I’m not sure how these are examples of selectivity, especially #2. I don’t think Genesis 2 teaches that the man held any authority or rank over the women before the Fall unless one adopts a misreading of Paul’s understanding of Genesis 2. The book addresses this in relation to both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

As to (1), I don’t see how this is subjective selectivity when the point of the section in which I talk about Esther is discussing the activities of women in the story of Israel. As a godly ruler, she exercised religious and political authority among God’s people. (Athaliah ruled in ungodly ways, just as many men did.) Male kings also exercised authority as well, which is uncontested and well-known by students of Scripture. Both did. And that is the point. Both did.

I do address each of the points raised to support the “norm of godly male leadership”—male priests, Jesus as male, male apostles, and male elders. The reader can see how I address those topics in the book. More on that in a moment. At the same time, it is important to remember that Scripture also pictures women who exercise authority and leadership over men like Deborah and Esther (consistent with the theology of creation since God does not sanction what violates the divine intent in creation, right?). It is not a uniform “norm of godly male leadership.”

I am grateful to see the affirmation of reading Scripture through the lens of the eschatological goal (new creation). Is it true, however, that I bloat the significance of 1 Timothy 2:12 for soft complementarianism?  Is this not the primary text, if not the only one, in the New Testament that is used by soft complementarians to delimit women from preaching or speaking authoritatively in the assembly (however authentein, “exercising authority” or “usurping authority,” is understood)? What other text does a soft complementarian (limited participation) use since 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 are typically understood to permit rather than prohibit the participation of women in the assembly, even encouraging praying and prophesying in the assembly (unless 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 prohibits “judging” as an authoritative function)? I am open, however, to hearing how the Corinthian texts might supply a principle or prohibition that grounds the “norm of godly male leadership.” I will await that discussion.

The part of the story Renew thinks I too easily dismiss is the thread of male leadership from priests in Israel to Jesus as male to male apostles to male elders. Thus, my understanding of the story, Renew claims, is incomplete. There is an assumption that this trajectory entails a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority over women. In the Lord, however, women are priests. Jesus represents all humans, and the goal is to conform all humans to the image of Christ. Nowhere does Scripture ever limit the gifts or authority of women because of the male gender of Jesus. The Twelve was limited to Jewish males, but this places no limit on the gift of apostleship Post-Pentecost (others than the Twelve are called apostles without being included in the Twelve, including a woman, Romans 16:7). Even if I grant only male elders for the moment (which I do not explicitly contest in the book), does this limit the gifts of women in the assembly? Is there a role in the assembly that belongs only to male elders? What text would provide that limitation other than 1 Timothy 2:12? So, we are back to 1 Timothy 2 as the lone text for delimiting the participation of women in the assembly.

Permit me to drill a bit deeper for a moment. Renew asks, “why was it that the apostles chose ethnically diverse men to lead in the Acts 6 distribution of food?” We are not told why. If we understand this as part of a pattern or “norm” of male leadership, would we not have to say a woman should never have that kind of function in the ministry of benevolence within the church? If we are going to use the exclusive male selection in Acts 6 as an example of a pattern or norm of male leadership and authority, then we must be careful to make sure that part of the pattern is carried out in the contemporary church? If that is a blueprint pattern, then may women ever serve as deacons? May they lead benevolent ministries? In what ways may they “serve tables” or are they excluded from serving the sorts of tables Acts 6 envisions? The illustration of Acts 6 and male leadership, it seems to me, highlights the danger of seeking male patterns where there are none explicitly identified or explained as such. This is the danger of inferences. This argument would exclude women from “serving tables” and ministries for which they are gifted and for which we have examples in Scripture, even as deacons (Phoebe, for example). It seems to me this illustrates how one might mistakenly discern a male “norm” and extrapolate from it more than intended by the story of God or the narrator (Luke).

It is nowhere stated that male priests are chosen because of some pattern or “norm” of male leadership rooted in creation. It is an inference that fits a particular way of reading. This inference, even if correct, is tempered by the fact that, in the Lord, women are priests who offer sacrifices of praise and serve as well as men. There are many examples of this kind of movement in Scripture. Why are not eunuchs chosen as priests in Israel? They are, nevertheless, priests in the Lord. Just as with eunuchs, there may be reasons for the exclusion of women from the priesthood that have nothing to do with the “norm” of male leadership.

Contesting my claim that there is “no hint of any rank or authority” for the man over the woman in Genesis 1-2, it is suggested that Paul sees it there. I don’t think he affirms that. In my opinion, that is a misreading of Paul. But we will get there when we discuss 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14 in later posts.

I appreciate Renew’s concern to combat male abuse and power-seeking male leadership. I fully believe Renew wants to embrace God’s design for humanity. Where we disagree, after we fully incorporate “all the relevant Scripture,” is whether God intends women to fully participate in the assemblies of the saints or not. I think “all the relevant Scripture” answers “Yes”.  Renew thinks otherwise.  We will let the readers judge as they walk with us through the various texts in future posts.

Renew, thank you for the response.  It is much appreciated, and I look forward to further discussion through the blog posts.




Response to Renew’s Review (Part 1) of “Women Serving God”

August 10, 2020

I am grateful for the attention Renée Sproles, Bobby Harrington, and Daniel McCoy give to my new book, Women Serving God, at Renew’s blog (their blog is over 7700 words but it covers Scot McKnight’s book as well; my response is only 2700+). I am happy to engage the conversation they have begun, and I look forward to future installments of their review. Sproles has her own book on this topic, which I read as part of my own study, entitled On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women–And Why It Matters.

I have a strong affinity for the work Renew is doing, especially their commitment to discipleship and disciple-making. I have attended Renew events, read their books, and enjoy friendships with many people associated with Renew. I am grateful for how they accentuate discipleship among churches through their organization. Yet, apparently, we find ourselves in a disagreement about the full participation of women in the assembly, which is the focus of my book.

I sense a basic concern is that somehow “Western elite values” are going to strip away biblical commands and render obedience to the will of God ineffective. Of course, I would oppose any such agenda myself. Yet, this, as I understand it, is part of the resistance to the full participation of women in the assemblies of the saints. I expect that we will see textual and theological arguments that demonstrate that is what is happening. I look forward to seeing the explanation.

I did not use the terminology egalitarian or egalitarianism in my book. I made no sustained argument about the relationship of husbands and wives (family) or church polity (bishops or elders). My focus was solely on the assembly and the level of participation by women in worshipping assemblies of churches of Christ. Sproles puts “egalitarian” in quotes. Though some may think she is quoting me, I do not use the term.

In relation to the assembly, it seems the only difference (as far as I can see at this point) between myself and Renew’s belief statement is the function of the “lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church” (a phrase that does not appear in Scripture). I’m not sure how the function of “elder/overseer” plays out in the assembly in Renew’s understanding. Are there gifts and functions in the assembly that belong only to the “senior minister/pastor” (as Sproles names it). Perhaps solo preaching? Policy announcements? Officiating at the table? I anticipate that will be clarified as we move along in the reviews.

Hermeneutics

Renée’s first topic is hermeneutics (since we have met, I’d rather use her first name as a friend and sister in Christ). Good hermeneutics and theology matter, and without one, the other is skewed. This is why I wrote Searching for the Pattern first because it lays out my understanding of hermeneutics in the context of the churches of Christ. I only briefly summarize it in a few pages in Women Serving God.

Seeking a Theological Point?

Without reading the first volume, I can understand how one might think I’m only interested in drawing out a theological point or even a “timeless theology” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words) from the “baggage of culture” (her words, not mine, even though they appear in quotes with the potential misunderstanding they are my words).

As I suggest in both Searching for the Pattern and Women Serving God, the theological point, in agreement with Renée, is the coherent story of God, which is the drama of God from creation to new creation; it is the pattern of God’s activity within the biblical drama. I’m not looking to draw a “theological truth from a time-bound biblical command” (her words). Rather, I am looking for the theological story (pattern, which is the gospel itself) that gave rise to that command and seeking to live obediently within that story in conformity to the meaning of that command.

For example, I agree with her baptismal example. My Searching for the Pattern has a case study on that topic. We follow Jesus into the water, participate in the gospel through baptism, and obediently conform to the gospel when we are baptized. Baptism and the gospel of Jesus are deeply and pervasively linked in the New Testament and, I would add, by the backstory in Israel. We are not immersed because it is an abstracted command as part of a blueprint hermeneutic. It is a gospel-formed command to follow Jesus into the water that is embedded in the kingdom story. For more, see my case study in Searching for the Pattern.

Subjective?

The search throughout Scripture for this coherent story, which is Renée’s own hermeneutic, is mine as well. To call it “subjective” is unhelpful. Precisely, in what way is it “subjective”? My approach is no more subjective than every hermeneutical reading of Scripture, but it is not so subjective that it necessarily privileges “culture” over the story of Scripture itself (which I sense is the real concern). I look forward to seeing examples where I supposedly do this with the text and discussing them.

At the same time, everyone reads Scripture with some cultural discernment (is that the subjectivity?). That is why women don’t wear veils, congregations don’t require holy kisses, or women are not forbidden to wear gold in assemblies even as women participate in limited ways through prayer, testimonies, etc. (soft complementarianism). Is it possible that this rejection of wearing veils and resistance to holy kisses is a case of “stripping away the teachings of Scripture on gender” in light of “Western elite values”? Is the privilege of wearing gold to the assembly a “Western elite value” that ignores Paul’s expressed desire? Might not soft complementarianism also be a failure to resist “Western elite values” when the historic tradition of the church silenced women in the assembly (including limited participation as it is understood in soft complementarianism), insisted on head coverings for centuries until only recently, and the early fathers objected to jewelry?

Four-Point Hermeneutic

I agree with the four points in Renée’s stated hermeneutic, though we both would want to elaborate their meaning and application. I incorporate each into Searching for the Pattern (I only slightly touch on #4 in that book). Principle #1 is applied throughout Women Serving God, especially Parts 3-6. I assume her second principle is conducive to understanding the role new creation plays in the biblical story as the “rule” (or canon; Paul’s word) by which we walk as disciples of Jesus (Galatians 6:15-16). I also assume her third principle also asks, “what does this mean?” without attempting to “wriggle out of obedience” (is that what I am trying to do?). I also assume her fourth principle gives space to critique the understanding of the traditions of the church, even if they are very early (such as a monarchical bishop, or that the early church fathers were not soft complementarians). I would add a fifth point: to read Scripture through the lens of the act of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, the eschatological goal (new creation) and its presence in the world, and the pattern we find in God’s incarnate example and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. This is a major part of the coherent story, it seems to me. We might say it is part of the second principle, which I have accentuated and made more explicit. But perhaps that fifth principle (as I stated it) is the rub and is excluded or conceived differently. I’m not sure; is it? How does Renée’s hermeneutic think about the function of new creation in telling the story of God in the Bible?

There seems to be a misunderstanding that I make a claim to “move beyond” Scripture in some way (which Renée puts in quotation marks though I never use those words). I never say that or intend that in the book. I don’t want to “move beyond” the coherent story in Scripture or the pattern present in it. Scripture points us beyond some specific circumstances (Artemis cult in Ephesus, silencing women who are interrupting speakers in the assembly) and some specific applications (veils, wearing gold, washing feet, it is better not to marry [1 Corinthians 7], etc.), but we don’t move beyond the coherent theology in the text. I don’t want to move beyond but understand the commands of God rooted in the gospel and God’s story. The question is, what does Scripture teach?

There is a sense, of course, in which we all “move beyond” Scripture in that we address topics, problems, and issues that are not specifically addressed in Scripture. For example, where does Scripture address cloning? But we don’t “move beyond” Scripture in the sense that we abandon the coherent story of God or subvert it. Rather, we apply that story to the new questions and situations that arise as we follow Jesus in the present context.

Trajectories in Scripture

I agree that salvation is both personal and communal, both individual and social; indeed, it is also cosmic. All my theological thought and teaching has been soaked in that very point for over thirty years. It is not “either personal salvation or new creation; it’s both.” I agree 100%. I’m not sure if Renée thinks I believe otherwise—she can’t get that from this book or my other writings. (In reading the review, sometimes I feel like my book is not is under review even though my name is associated with the idea. Perhaps this is the problem of reviewing two books at once as views and purposes are too easily conflated.)

The story of Scripture is God at work to transform persons, communities, and the creation; and the goal of that transformation is conformation to the image of Christ so that Christ fills all things. God will achieve that goal in the final consummation, and new creation is already at work in the church as a mission outpost of the kingdom of God here and now. In what ways does the final consummation (new creation) show up in the present? What is already present that belongs most fully to what is not yet? That is the reason for thinking about a new creation hermeneutical dimension—and I do so precisely because Paul did.

As Renée notes, there are trajectories in Scripture (e.g., movement from Mosaic to New Covenant; including—I would add—the inclusion of women as priests in Christ, how women now inherit without male instrumentality in Christ, rejection of polygamy, etc.). I suggest another is the movement from creation to new creation. There are key moments in that trajectory, including the Call of Abraham, Exodus, Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection, Pentecost, and New Heaven and New Earth. There are key texts within Scripture that interpret these moments.  Those texts help us understand the trajectory.

I don’t think I choose a text in the abstract. Rather, I am seeking the coherence of the story (Renée’s hermeneutical point #2) and how texts reflect, embody, or teach that trajectory within the story. What significance Galatians 3:28 has in the context of God’s coherent story is a matter for discussion. Highlighting that text is not necessarily cherry picking but paying attention to the movement toward new creation (new creaturehood in Christ) within the story of God.

Renée asks, “Why is the paradigm shift primarily to ‘oneness’ and not to citizenship in God’s kingdom or something else?” I only use the word “oneness” twice—once in terms of its reality in creation and new creation (p. 139) and about oneness at the table of the Lord (p. 146). I don’t suggest that citizenship and oneness are two ultimately different things but rather citizenship in the kingdom of God includes oneness and moves us toward the fullness of that oneness or unity we will experience in the new heaven and new earth. This is the goal of God from the beginning (John 17:20-26), and it is reflected in our union with Christ. It is the unity and fellowship of the Spirit.

Culture

There is always a danger that culture will reshape the theological story. This was part of my point in Part 2 of Women Serving God. The danger is not only found in present culture but in past cultures as well. For example, many leaders and teachers in the American Restoration Movement used 1 Timothy 2:12 to deny women the vote, silence women from leading prayer or speaking in any form in the assembly, prohibit women from teaching adult Bible classes with men present, prohibit women from teaching twelve year old baptized males in Bible class, exclude women from baptizing others, or exclude women from public careers in society. Renée and I are on the same page. We must not permit culture to subvert or override the coherent story of Scripture.

Anyone’s search for that coherent story can “lead us right off the pages of Scripture,” not just mine. Of course, the opposite danger is that some read Scripture so rigidly and in conformity to their traditions that they will, as Jesus put it about the Pharisees, make a convert “twice as much a child of hell as” the teacher (Matthew 23:15). To be clear, I don’t think that is what Renew is doing, but I don’t think I am leading people “off the pages of Scripture” either. But I do suggest that Renew might consider embracing full participation rather than a limited one for women in the assembly. Perhaps it is tradition that hinders that full participation rather than a coherent biblical theology.

While Renée seems to think that the net effect of my understanding is “to subsume the way of Jesus under the authority of a given culture,” I think that must be demonstrated. It is certainly not my intent. I assume we will see the evidence for this marshaled in future installments.

I think Renée misunderstands a significant point in my book. I am not opposed to the proper functions of authority within the community of faith that are rooted in God’s gifts to the community. Authority per se is not a bad word for me; I use it often in the book. When Renée states that I believe “hierarchy and authority are antithetical to equality, mutuality, and unity,” she is mistaken. I think hierarchy and authoritarianism (which is the word I used in the context she quoted) are antithetical, but authority and equality/mutuality/unity are not. Her extended quotes from my book come in the context of my opposition to sacerdotal hierarchical authoritarianism around the table and its misuse of “authority.” Contextually, I am referring to Jesus’s opposition to Gentile leaders who wrongly use authority (“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors;” Luke 22:25). Jesus contrasts that use of authority with how his disciples ought to relate to each other. The table is a place for the priesthood of all believers, shared places at the table, and mutual service.

Where we disagree, I presume, is that she understands Scripture to teach male authority over women (at the table?) in the assembly in some form or function. I don’t think that is part of the Bible’s coherent story. I look forward to the future discussion of the role of male authority in the assembly as well as the argument for grounding that male authority in creation ontology or essence (which I address in Women Serving God).

I do not, as Daniel & Bobby write, use Galatians 3:28 to undermine “authority.”  It does, however, undermine male authority just as it undermines ethnic authority (Jew vs. Gentile) and economic authority (slave vs. free) as boundaries for the pouring out of the Spirit’s gifts and the exercise of those gifts in the assembly.

It seems to me that Scripture is full of liberation, mission, and the hope of new creation: exodus, ministry of Jesus, resurrection, new creatures in Christ, and cosmic liberation of the creation (to name a few).  Let’s talk about what that entails for the giftedness of women in the assembly rather than projecting what it might mean in the hands of others. What does it mean in my book?

On Interpretation

It is unhelpful to say “Hicks interprets away the key texts,” as Bobby & Daniel do. (I imagine the only key text about which we might disagree in terms of the assembly is 1 Timothy 2, but I may be wrong.) That is a charge that needs demonstration, which I assume is coming in future installments. But why say that here, and why say it that way? It is rhetorical flourish rather than an argument. I don’t want to interpret “away” anything. I want to understand the mystery of God (the gospel of godliness) revealed in those texts. Let’s talk about what my book actually says rather than deflecting the question to what others might do with it.  When we discuss the details of the book’s argument, then readers can decide whether something is explained “away” or not.

It is fair to call it a reinterpretation, though these texts have always been under various forms of reinterpretation and diverse understandings throughout history. The church has historically reinterpreted other texts (e.g., slavery, veils, holy kiss, wearing gold, washing feet, age limit on the support of widows, etc.). Perhaps some texts need reinterpretation (or the revival of old interpretations long forgotten) in order to hear the coherent story (including new creation) more fully because centuries of male authority have given us the wrong lenses with which to read the text. Perhaps we need a moment like Peter had at Simon’s house in Joppa to help us see what we could not previously see so that we might read Scripture more appropriately and more fully in the light of what God did in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this dialogue. I hope we can proceed with some reciprocity, respect, and mutual love without rhetorical embellishments. 

Peace and grace from our Lord Jesus Christ to my siblings, Renée, Bobby, and Daniel. Rick, my dear friend, I suppose I’ll see in you in future installments. Peace to all.


Women Serving God: A Study Guide

July 10, 2020

Does God invite women to fully participate in the assemblies of God?

My new book, Women Serving God, addresses this question. It is now available on Amazon in both Kindle ebook ($9.99) and print ($14.95).

In addition, I have produced a teaching/discussion study guide for the book designed for small groups or Bible classes.

Among churches of Christ, the voices of women are typically silent and excluded from visible leadership in assemblies gathered for prayer and praise. In this book, I tell the story of my own journey to understand how women have served God throughout the unfolding drama of Scripture. I describe my movement from the exclusion of the voices of women and their leadership in the assembly to a limited inclusion, and finally to the full inclusion of those voices and their leadership. Along the way, I describe some of the history of churches of Christ as well as my own history but ultimately focus on the meaning of biblical texts and how they support the full participation of women in the assemblies of God.

Three women, Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, and Lauren Smelser White, respond to and extend John Mark’s thoughts.

John Mark is detailed, fair, and vulnerable about his own journey and our collective journey in Churches of Christ. I recommend John Mark as a trustworthy guide. Dr. Sara G. Barton, University Chaplain, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

Do we believe that the Holy Spirit equally equips both women and men to carry out Jesus’s message of reconciliation? Dr. Hicks is a trusted guide in navigating the depth of scripture and the complexity of our cultural moment. Drink deeply from this well! Dr. Joshua Graves, Otter Creek Church, Brentwood, Tennessee.

With characteristic depth, rigor, and generosity, Hicks offers his own journey toward embracing the inclusion of women’s voices in the assembly. Hicks writes with a familiarity of Restoration Movement history that few can boast, with an accompanying dedication to searching the scriptures. Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby, Instructor in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, Abilene Christian University.

This book is a gift to twenty-first century Churches of Christ. Part autobiography, part history, part exegesis, and part biblical theology, Hicks’s exploration of the Bible’s teachings on the role of women in congregational gatherings offers several invaluable components. Dr. James L. Gorman, Associate Professor of History, Johnson University

JOHN MARK HICKS is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. He has taught for thirty-nine years in schools associated with the churches of Christ. He has authored or co-authored eighteen books, lectured in twenty-two countries and forty states, and is married to Jennifer. They share five living children and six grandchildren.


Hermeneutics is Always Inferential

January 21, 2020

Below I summarize the point of Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.h

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I embraced and practiced a hermeneutic that sought an implicit blueprint for the work and worship of the church in Acts and the Epistles. Through a filter of generic/specific distinctions, coordinate associations, the law of silence, and expediency (among other rules for authorization), I shifted through the commands, examples, and inferences within the New Testament to deduce a blueprint, which then became the standard of faithfulness and a mark of the true church.  And if everyone agreed upon and practiced the blueprint, we would be united! Part I of my book tells this story.

The inadequacies of this approach as well as its subjectivity (every conclusion and most steps along the way were inferences) created doubts. This is not how the apostolic witness called people to gospel obedience. They did not read Scripture or write Scripture with a blueprint lens. Something different was going on. This is described in Part II of my book.

The problem is the location of the pattern. The pattern is not found in an implied blueprint in Acts and the Epistles. Paul does not call people to obedience based on a blueprint located in the practices of the church. Instead, he calls them to obedience based on the pattern manifested in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. This is the gospel we obey—the story of Jesus—rather than a blueprint we have inferred from the text but is not explicitly there. This is my point in Part III of my book.

Hermeneutics, even a theological hermeneutic which I promote in the book, always involves inferences. We cannot escape them; every application is an inference. But here is the significant point: the pattern is not an inference. On the contrary, it is the story in which we live. It is the narrative air we breathe. The pattern of God’s work through Christ in the power of the Spirit is clear, objective, and formative. It is the story told in Scripture; it is an explicit pattern.

We will find unity when we confess the same pattern, and the shame of our division is that we already confess the same pattern.  Our pattern is God in Jesus through the Spirit, or our pattern is Jesus. Here we are united, and our hermeneutics (whether blueprint or theological) must not undermine that unity but provide ways to embody it.  That is the point of Part IV of my book.


Life in the Spirit – Transformation (Part 1)

December 16, 2019

Disciples of Jesus, like their Messiah, have been anointed with the Holy Spirit. Disciples of Jesus walk by the Spirit, live by the Spirit, and are led by the Spirit. The Spirit is the air we breathe and is the one who empowers us. Ours is a life in the Spirit.

But what do we mean when we say that disciples of Jesus live in the Spirit? The Theodrama emphasizes three dimensions of this life in the Spirit: (1) communion, (2) transformation, and (3) giftedness.

First, as noted in the previous presentation, the Spirit is the one by whom we commune with the Triune God. Now, second, we turn our attention to the work of the Spirit in transformation.

The Holy Spirit is the power by whom we are transformed into the image of Christ. The Spirit indwells us to empower, strengthen, and sanctify us. The Spirit bears the fruit of love, peace and joy in our lives, comforts us in our inner person, empowers forgiveness and release from resentment, and enables our transformation.

The Spirit mediates our communion with the Triune God, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling, and sanctifying presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.

Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (or, metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within us, and this holy presence bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.

The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of this presence is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

We see the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are personal self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness. God, by the Spirit, forms us into the image of Christ, and that is the glory and goal God has in store for us.


Book Review: Visions of Restoration by John Young

September 20, 2019

John Young, an adjunct instructor at Amridge University and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Alabama, has written a brief history of Churches of Christ entitled Visions of Restoration (Cypress Publications, 2019; 111 pages).  Brevity sacrifices detail and nuance, but that is acceptable when the purpose is to offer something easily digestible for the reader. Young, I believe, accomplishes his purpose and provides readers with an accessible introductory volume.

At the outset, he recognizes that restorationists live in the tension between primitivism (e.g., we are the church of the New Testament) and historical tradition (e.g., our history has defined contours). This is complicated by the fact that the restorationist tradition finds other expressions in Puritanism (e.g., John Owen) and other 19th century movements in New England (Elias Smith) and Virginia (James O’Kelly). Consequently, it is difficult to navigate both the historical tradition of Churches of Christ and its restorationist claims. Young, it seems to me, rightly sees the tension, and he addresses the historical tradition (“present day Churches of Christ are…a modern movement which seeks to restore” the New Testament church, p. 5) without discounting the theological claim itself (he does not argue whether the theological claim is true or not but recognizes the intent and judges that perhaps it is the “most thorough” of restorationist attempts). As such, Young’s book is a history of a modern movement, a historical tradition deeply connected with places, events, people, and ideas.

Young introduces readers to the “Big Four”: Barton W. Stone, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. Recognizing the revivalist context of Stone’s early beginning and the move out of sectarianism by the Campbells, and Scott’s five finger exercise, Young’s brief summaries are helpful.

Young recognizes that the 1832 union between the Stone and Campbell groups was neither simple nor easy. Many in Stone’s group were uneasy with Campbell and some united with the Smith and O’Kelly groups rather than Campbell. Campbell himself, which Young does not note, was not enthusiastic about this union because he was rather suspicious of Stone’s lack of evangelical Orthodoxy (with good reason, especially Stone’s Trinitarianism and Christology). Nevertheless, the united movement became the 5th largest Christian group in the U.S. by 1870.

Though union propelled the movement from the 1820s to the 1870s, “some cracks in the foundation” emerged just prior to the Civil War and exploded after the Civil War. I think Young is correct that the division is both theological (a difference over the application of the received hermeneutic) and sectional (the aftermath of the Civil War—both in terms of politics and sociology). One of the more helpful points Young makes about this division between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ—formally expressed in 1906—is the role political thought played in the separation, especially as southern congregations were skeptical of government and northern congregations were more nationalistic. The election of James A. Garfield was heralded as a great moment by northern Disciples but lamented by many southerners (notably David Lipscomb).

I do appreciate how Young recognizes both the theological and sociological dimensions of the division. There was a significant hermeneutical chasm between the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, which resulted in different views on instrumental music and the missionary societies. And there was also a deep sectional, sociological, political, and economic divide as well. Young correctly gives weight to both. By the 1880s, congregations were dividing over the instrument, and by 1906 the Churches of Christ were primarily located in the Confederate states and the Disciples of Christ were located in the Union states. Sectionalism as well as theology had an impact.

Young offers an interesting interpretation of the history of Churches of Christ after their separation from the Disciples.

On the one hand, the one-cup congregations and the non-Sunday School congregations separated themselves from the primary trajectory of Churches of Christ as independent movements.  This happened in the 1900s-1920s. Another group separated itself in the 1990s, and Young helpfully devotes a chapter to the rise of the International Church of Christ  (with its roots in the Campus Evangelism of the 1960s-1970s among Churches of Christ).

On the other hand, other divisions were exclusions rather than separations, and the exclusions mitigated damage to the church’s perceived uniformity, though this was accomplished not only through theological argument but also by personal attacks and political maneuvers (e.g., quarantines and exclusion from places of power in the schools and platforms at the lectureships). In this way, dispensational premillennial congregations were marginalized and excluded as were non-institutional congregations.

Another typically excluded group, to which Young devotes a chapter, are African American congregations. He identifies key figures, and assesses similarities and differences. But they all shared the same problem: Jim Crow culture. In this way, African American congregations were also excluded, though not for theological but racial reasons. Hopefully, that is changing.

Another group, to which Young devotes a chapter, is the history of women among Churches of Christ whose voices have been excluded. There is some diversity in the beginning and among the Disciples of Christ, but Churches of Christ muted female voices in the assembly. There was some pushback from women Selina Holman of Tennessee and—Young does not discuss this—leaders like Daniel Sommer. In assemblies in Sommer’s circles, the female voice was heard in prayer, exhortation, reading Scripture, and leading singing. Generally, women were excluded on the theological grounds: their sex demanded their public silence in both church and society (until suffrage changed the social landscape). Hopefully, that is changing.

The 1960s saw the emergence more educated, socially conscious, and pneumatically open thinkers and congregations who expressed themselves through publications like the Restoration Quarterly, Mission, and Integrity. This was countered by the rise of publications like the Spiritual Sword and Contending for the Faith. This was the beginning of a hermeneutical struggle as the former increasingly rejected the received hermeneutic for what their critics called a “new hermeneutic,” and the latter became increasingly involved in the politics of the evangelical right (which is a reversal of what characterized much of the Churches of Christ in the late 19th century). These two groups within Churches of Christ, as Young puts it, are increasingly “drifting apart.”

Young leaves us with two groups “drifting apart.” The unity movement did not bear the fruit of unity. And this is because, as the title of the book suggests, there were competing “visions of restoration.”

In some ways, this is a sad story. In other ways, there is a freedom that gives birth to the hope of renewing life in God’s redemptive work rather than in our theological opinions. Let us hope, pray, and struggle for that renewal.


Keith Stanglin’s Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: Some Reflections

June 11, 2019

Keith D. Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). 274 pages.

Presentation at the 2019 Christian Scholars Conference in Lubbock, Texas.

I welcome this book on several levels.

For me, and for others who have worked vocationally in historical theology, it is a welcome reacquaintance with past figures. I found myself renewing friendships with Gregory of Nyssa, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Calvin of Geneva, and even the Dutch Remonstrants whose influence was much greater than their numbers.

In addition, the purpose of this nostalgic journey is the rehabilitation of the spiritual sense of Scripture or theological hermeneutics. Stanglin, following Paul, calls it the “letter” and the “spirit,” or the literal and spiritual, senses of Scripture. The spiritual sense seeks theological understanding beyond, though not irrespective of, the literal sense, especially where the literal sense is equated with the authorial intent of the human writer.

Both of these concerns are germane to my own work, and I noted a kinship between Keith’s interest and my teaching over the past thirty-seven years.  This interest commits Stanglin to an exercise in “retrieval exegesis” (211) or “retrieval theology” (11). By this, he intends to “provide critical understanding of and appreciation for both premodern and modern exegesis” in search of “a balanced and fruitful interaction between the letter and the spirit” (11).

I applaud this goal, and in pursuing it, Stanglin highlights the spiritual while not vacating the literal sense. In other words, one agenda of the book is to sanction theological interpretation and propose it as a healing balm for the woes of the splintered and chaotic practice of modern historical-critical exegesis.

My old friends appear one after another in Stanglin’s analysis. Such a survey is, of course, selective and Keith acknowledges this. I have no significant misgiving about his choices. Irenaeus, Origen, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Spinoza, and Lessing are obvious and important, even necessary, choices. I found three particularly significant because they intersect with my own interests.

First, Irenaeus is foundational to Stanglin’s reading of the patristic tradition. A central conviction, which lies at the heart of a theological hermeneutic, is present in the bishop. Keith characterizes it in this way: “the Scriptures display a fundamental unity that allows this kind of typological and intertextual play within the bounds of this grand story of redemption” (31). Irenaeus knew that everyone reads the text against the background of a hypothesis, which norms what the text can mean or gives boundaries to the meaning of a text. Received through catechism, baptism, and liturgy, the church wears the Regula Fidei as a set of glasses through which Scripture is read, and with this lens even the illiterate are able to discern between the illegitimacy of the Gnostic hypothesis and the truth of the received narrative (34). Irenaeus, then, establishes two key principles that are part of Stanglin’s ultimate conclusion about theological hermeneutics: analogia scripturae and analogia fidei (206, 222-3).

Second, though seemingly a minor character in the narrative (three pages in the text, 141-144), Stanglin’s attention to William Perkins—arguably the primary influence on seventeenth century English Puritans—is important for several reasons. On the one hand, Perkins represents Reformed scholasticism, and, on the other hand, anticipates a modern reading of Scripture through a rational lens, though that rationality serves a different purpose than critical exegesis.  As Keith notes, Perkins believed there was only one sense of Scripture, the literal one, but he subsumed other traditional senses under that rubric. For Perkins, the literal sense, with his attendant use of typology and allegory, served the theological agenda of Scripture, that is, to deduce a system of theology. Perkins practiced a theological hermeneutic that accentuated the unity of Scripture through an eminently rational lens. Assuming a theological system as part of the text, Perkins employed positivistic distinctions between generic and specific, between explicit and implicit teachings of Scripture in order to deduce that system. Later, mid-20th century leaders among Churches of Christ, as heirs of the Puritan Reformed tradition, would do the same with generic and specific, with explicit and implicit distinctions, though they sought an ecclesial pattern more than a systematic theology. In this way, Perkins is like a hinge upon which the church swings from premodern to modern exegesis but without being fully committed to either.

Third, I cannot fail to comment on Alexander Campbell, who takes up four pages in Stanglin’s narrative (169-172).  I think Keith is fundamentally correct. Campbell embraced nuda scriptura, which seems to undermine the Irenaean function of the Regula Fidei. Campbell does not have a regulated reading in the sense of a Rule of Faith external to the text of Scripture, but he does read Scripture with a hermeneutic regulated by an inductive sense of God’s narrative which Campbell thought was helpfully summarized in the Apostles Creed. For Campbell, the rule of faith is the internal dynamic of the narrative itself. This inscripturated narrative functions as a canon within the canon and renders the Rule of Faith as an external summary unnecessary, though it might be helpful as a rehearsal of facts.  In this sense, we might say, he read Scripture through his own inductively inferred rule of faith.

Also, Scripture, according to Campbell, is subject to “all the rules of interpretation which we apply to other books” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111). He follows Moses Stuart on this point, who—more than any other writer—shaped Campbell’s historical-grammatical consciousness. Campbell published Stuart’s article entitled, “Are the same principles of interpretation to be applied to the Scriptures as to other Books?” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 64.) It was a rhetorical question. For Campbell this is rooted in the nature of language itself, and if one wants to understand the “doctrine of the New Testament,” one must understand the “proper meaning of words, whether literal, allegorical, typical, or parabolical.” In other words, as Campbell says, “The Bible means what it says.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 490.) And, we might add, only what it says. This hermeneutical commitment, along with his linguistic and hermeneutical optimism, grounded his pursuit of the restoration of the ancient order towards the goal of ecclesial unity.

While Scripture’s proper meaning is singular, it is sometimes “literal” and sometimes “figurative” (parabolic, allegorical, typological). Campbell is willing to name this “figurative” meaning as “spiritual,” but he fears the word carried the baggage of “Origen” where “every word” in the Bible had “a spiritual sense.” This gave the term “spiritual” a negative appearance (a “malem partem”) and thus it was “discarded even where it might have been tolerable.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491.) Stanglin is correct. “Campbell takes the classic Protestant angle of folding the spiritual sense into the literal” (171). There is no “double sense” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111), but every text has a particular sense, which may be literal or spiritual (figurative). “We object not,” Campbell wrote, “to the allegoric, parabolic, and typical sense; or, to express it in one word, the figurative sense. But we do not expect to find any other than the literal sense except where figures are used.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491-2.).  In other words, every text of Scripture has only one meaning or sense (he quotes both Luther and the Westminster Divines in support). If the literal does not yield that single sense, we look to the figurative (which is the spiritual sense). We can only move to the spiritual sense when the literal is non-sensical, or where there is a specific indication that a figurative meaning is in view. In other words, we cannot read the Old Testament the way the apostles read it. In this way, Campbell represented the rise of modern exegesis and expected to find no legitimate meaning in text other than what is accessible by its plain words.

Stanglin grounds the legitimacy of theological hermeneutics in the historic practice of the church that has lived under the Rule of Faith (analogia fidei) for almost two thousand years, the unity of Scripture (analogia scripturae), and the primacy of the literal sense to which any spiritual sense is tied. Keith also rejects several significant modern presuppositions, including (1) the neutrality of reader and (2) the single sense of the text limited to the intent of the human author. I wondered, however, whether he also rejected the modern assumption of the passivity of the reader. I don’t think so, but I want to press the point a bit.

For example, Stanglin suggests the spiritual sense of Scripture is not merely an application of the text but “in some sense meant to be found in the text” (217) and, at the same time, it is an interpretation or “appropriation” (217). I presume this meaning is intended by the divine author and discerned by the human reader. The reader is not passive but is the means by which God opens up new meaning so that a kind of “this is that” appears “when ’that’ is something new and apparently far removed from the original ‘this’” (217).

Theological hermeneutics, then, is where ecclesially-formed, believing readers co-create meaning with the text (1) within liturgical life of the church, (2) in the confidence of the sacramental function of Scripture, and (3) the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit. Such readers, inhabited by the indwelling Spirit, listen to hear how “this is that” and see what is not explicitly there. It seems to me that Stanglin’s proposal could use more emphasis on these three points, particularly the hermeneutical role of the Spirit. Though these three points are present in one form or another, his proposal is more epistemological than sacramental or liturgical. Nevertheless, the seeds of a fuller sacramental and liturgical picture are present in his work.

By way of illustration, permit me to probe one of Keith’s examples. Might “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer refer to Eucharistic bread? Tertullian thought so (On Prayer, 6).[1] In fact, Tertullian preferred what he called “the spiritual understanding”—Jesus is the bread of life who “authoritatively ranked” his body “as bread” when he said, “This is my body.”

Keith asks, “Did Jesus or Matthew intend” eucharistic bread? “Does it matter?” (240). I appreciate the controls Keith suggests on theological interpretation. They give theological interpretation a wide berth, perhaps too wide for modern historians. But I don’t think too wide for ecclesial theologians.  

In terms of the Lord’s prayer, “bread” is literally present, and Eucharistic bread does not subvert or contradict the literal meaning.  Further, “bread” is an important theme in redemptive history, which often has a double sense. Manna, for example, is both physical and spiritual nourishment since Christ is the spiritual food Israel consumed in the wilderness, according to Paul. Eucharistic bread in the Lord’s Prayer is not only consistent with the Rule of Faith but, given the liturgical context of its practice, points us toward the Eucharistic bread.

If we read the Lord’s Prayer in this way as part of the liturgy of the church where it is recited just prior to the distribution of the bread and wine, we see spiritual interpretation doing its good work. It illustrates how the church legitimately co-creates meaning that is beyond the explicit statements in the text. It illustrates how Scripture is multivalent and capable of new meaning in new situations irrespective of the human author’s intent.

But is the spiritual meaning in the text? In one sense, yes, because it is situated within a grand story that gives such meaning to bread. And we might surmise that the divine author intended it as a meaning inherent in the text. But in another sense, it is not, but that is okay. The church—as a faithful reader—is called to co-create meaning with the text for the sake of the formation of the people of God into the image of God. This is Scripture’s sacramental function within the liturgical life of the church. Given God’s history with God’s people and given the confession of the Rule of Faith and its practice within the church, the text itself gives rise to meaning beyond the human author’s intent.  The church hears the word of God, understands its depth and profundity, and performs it liturgically and ethically.

Stanglin’s contribution identifies an overlapping harmony between modern and premodern interpretation though differences remain. There is a common ground between the methods where they might mutually enrich each other. The exploration of this common ground while recognizing how the differences entail quite distinct hermeneutical practices will be an ongoing task of the contemporary church.


[1] E. Evans, Tertullian’s Tract on Prayer (London: S.P.C.K., 1953) 11-13.


New Book on the Holy Spirit

May 22, 2018

“The mission of the Spirit…is equal in importance to the mission of the Son.”

This is probably the most provocative as well as evocative sentence (p. 107) in Leonard Allen’s new book entitled Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (ACU Press, 2018).

The mission of God (missio Dei) involves a “double sending—two missions: the mission of the Spirit and the mission of the Son.” One is incomplete without the other. Allen suggests the “mission of the Son,” who is the “central content of the gospel,” becomes “operative and effective through the mission of the Spirit,” which empowers the ministry of the church, gives the church the experience of divine life, and forms the church into the image of Christ (p. 108). While the Father is the source of life, and the Son is the model of life, the Spirit is the one who brings life “so that we actually experience it” (p. 70). Consequently, “the missions of the Son and of the Spirit are equal, each according to its distinct function” (p. 108), as both the Son and the Spirit are sent by the Father into the world to accomplish the divine mission (which includes the functions of both the Son and the Spirit).

Allen’s book seeks to restore the place of the Holy Spirit in the church’s theology of Trinity, mission, and formation. While there are significant and rather comprehensive discussions of the latter and the former, the heart of the book is the relationship between Spirit and mission.

Allen provides a nice summary of the fundamental point of the book (p. 179):

I have developed a three-part thesis: (1) with the receding of (neo-) Christendom, a strong new focus on the mission of God has been emerging; (2) at the same time an unprecedented focus on the Holy Spirit has also emerged [especially in the Global South, JMH]; and (3) the renewal of mission and the Holy Spirit go hand in hand.

This conjunction means that every Christian is a missionary in our new post-Christian context (particularly in the West), and it means that every Christian is a charismatic, that is, indwelt and gifted by the Spirit for mission.

I highly recommend this book for study in small groups, congregational classes, and personal reflection as well as a guide for a homiletic foray into a congregational focus on the Holy Spirit in the assembly’s worship and learning of God.

To my mind, this is the most significant book to appear on the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ since Robert Richardson’s 1873 A Scriptural View of the Office of the Holy Spirit.